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Find your Roots: Pennsylvania Native Plant Edition

You’ve heard of ‘Find Your Roots,’ but what about planting them? You don’t have to be interested in genealogy or local history to appreciate Pennsylvania’s natural history and beauty. One way that we can incorporate the natural beauty of our state is by planting native plants in our backyards. Native plants are low maintenance, adapted for our local climate, and create food for birds and pollinators. Pollinators include native bees, moths, beetles, hummingbirds and butterflies, such as the famous Monarch butterfly.

This year, I decided to forgo spending my weekends anxiously obsessing over lawn care. Instead, I chose to explore what resources we have at the library to help support creating a native plant garden. I wanted to work with nature and my small neighbors, rather than against them. I also wanted to focus on low cost/no cost community resources.

I am fortunate that my amazing colleagues had started compiling resources for the 11th Annual Seed Swap which takes place on Saturday, March 4 from 10am – 2pm. This made finding Grow Pittsburgh and their resources even easier! Grow Pittsburgh offers Garden and Farm Resources for guidance on starting and caring for your backyard garden. We also partnered with Phipps Conservatory, which offers on-site and remote classes and programs to learn more about the natural world with an expert!

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources also provides some guidance for landscaping with native plants. They offer PDF guides on planting based on your garden’s sun exposure and soil moisture. According to Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, as of 2020, Pennsylvania has over 2 million acres of lawn or turfgrass. Imagine how many butterflies we could offer a tasty meal and comfortable habitat to if we planted some flower beds with native plants, such as common milkweed or bee balm.

I created a layout of my yard and potential garden by looking up my house on the Allegheny County Real Estate Portal, which allowed me to see the size of the parcel I live on. It aided me in determining how much space I was working with, all from the comfort of my couch! After refreshing my geometry skills with a protractor, I created a scale layout of my yard with some graph paper and had a better idea of the green space.

Using the field guides available in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh circulating Pennsylvania collection, I was able to explore what plants were already growing in my yard, what was native and what was not. I read through them and explored my late winter yard. While many plants were dormant, I was able to identify some native plants in my yard that were already established. I was not able to use “Butterflies of Pennsylvania” quite yet, but I am hopeful to see a Swallowtail this summer!

One resource that is very accessible and great for residents who don’t have a green space of their own is the Pittsburgh Vacant Lot Toolkit. Pittsburgh Vacant Lot Toolkit was created in December 2015 by Pittsburgh City Planning. This guide is fantastic for learning how to affordably impact your community by adopting one of the region’s many vacant lots to turn it into a beneficial edible, flower or rain garden. This guide provides the reader with insight into local resources and working to improve our city, one vacant lot at a time. I used this resource to get guidance on planning my garden and what recommendations and resources the city has to offer.

If you are unable to adopt a lot or start your own flower beds, you can always enjoy learning about local natural history and the natural world in general. We have some titles which would be beneficial to those who enjoy the natural world. I recommend reading up and downloading iNaturalist to interact and explore the natural world in your community.

Here are many of the books and resources that I explored to start establishing a Pennsylvania garden:

  • Wildflowers of Pennsylvania by Mary Joy Haywood & Phyllis Testal Monk.
    This field guide has high quality photo images of different wildflowers of Pennsylvania, complete with information about the plant itself. This is great for those seeking to understand the botany of Pennsylvania better.
  • Field Guide to Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic by Bill Russell.
    If you’ve enjoyed the recent mushroom aesthetic renaissance, this will be the perfect field guide for your Spring mushroom exploration!
  • Edible Wild Plants of Pennsylvania and Neighboring States by Richard J. Medve and Mary Lee Medve.
    If you’re an adventurous eater, this is a book for you! This book has identifying information about regional native plants and recipes for how to enjoy their natural flavors.
  • Trees of Pennsylvania: field guide by Stan Tekiela.
    This helpful and conveniently sized field guide is the perfect companion for identifying our regions trees, their bark and other helpful information about native trees.
  • Butterflies of Pennsylvania: a Field Guide by James L. Monroe.
    Connect with Monarchs and Swallowtails by learning about their food preferences and life cycles. This vivid guide educates the reader about the different native butterflies of Pennsylvania.
  • The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife by Nancy Lawsone.
    This book is complete with garden spotlights of different regional gardeners who turned their spaces into native wildlife habitats. Complete with color photos and helpful, relatable text. The author lives in a region that shares many native plants with Southwestern Pennsylvania. I found this book to be easily read and understood, as a Neurodivergent reader. This is also available on Hoopla and BARD.
  • Wildlife in your Garden: Planting and Landscaping to Create a Backyard Sanctuary.
    This book is a great representation of how your backyard can become an entire ecosystem. This is a visually engaging resource that also has helpful and educational refreshers on ecosystems. Also available on Libby.
  • Appalachian Spring by Marcia Bonta.
    This narrative-style snapshot of the Appalachia wild is both immersive and educational! Marcia Bonta shares her experiences living in the serene wilderness of Pennsylvania. If you’re looking for a lunch-time escape into the woods to watch sparrows dance, this is the perfect nonfic pick for you! This title is also available on BARD. Find more information about BARD by contacting Library for Accessible Media for Pennsylvanians.


Grow Pittsburgh

Grow Pittsburgh – Garden and Farm Resources

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources – Native Plants

Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program

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